Brandon Veale column: Another lap with NASCAR

For this lapsed NASCAR fan, COVID-19 has proven that time is a flat oval.


There's no doubt COVID-19 has drastically limited options for the viewer of live sports in North America. I've sampled German Bundesliga soccer and the Korea Baseball Organization, but closer to home, I turn on NASCAR and find myself returning to a familiar start/finish line.

Starting in the mid-1990s, I was as dedicated a NASCAR fan as there was. I'd hijack the TV at the family cottage to watch the June race at Michigan. I knew what channel The Nashville Network was on my cable system.

There were diecast cars and dozens of back issues of AutoWeek a family friend handed off to me at church. I didn't bother with the technical aspects of new Corvettes or industry news out of Detroit; I jumped straight to the racing section.

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula, more than six hours away from any NASCAR Cup-level track, so I've never seen a race live. I'm not really a "gear-head." I drive a two-door Ford and am perfectly happy that it gets me where I need to go. Dad told me he'd take my license away if he ever caught me racing anything, and I'm not completely sure that rule has been rescinded.

The 1995 season was the beginning of the Jeff Gordon era and I was right there for it. Unlike many drivers, Gordon was young, didn't have a Southern accent, and he wasn't sponsored by beer or cigarettes, so I could wear his T-shirt to school. It was never hard to find the colorful DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet Monte Carlo on the track, normally near the front.


Gordon won four championships (1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001) and three Daytona 500s (1997, 1999, 2005). With the possible exception of the Detroit Red Wings, he and his "Rainbow Warriors" crew were the most successful team I followed in my childhood.

But nothing stays like we remember it as kids. I remember where I was when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500 (at a lengthy tech rehearsal for the school musical).

That race marked the beginning of Fox's new TV contract and a new and more cynical era. Everyone with a few hundred acres of land seemed to want to build a track, taking dates away from more traditional (and in most cases, better) venues. Fox started refusing to call races by their full names if the title sponsor hadn't paid them.

NASCAR seemed desperate to position itself as an equal at the North American sporting table, and to achieve that meant dealing with the elephant in the room: football. The Chase for the Championship started in 2004, an attempt to designate the fall races as "playoffs" to avoid being buried by the SEC and NFL.

I may be biased, since math indicates Gordon would have won two more championships (2004, 2007) had the Chase never existed, but the whole thing seemed like a gimmick. The NFL being the NFL, NASCAR just spun its proverbial tires in response, layering on more and more gimmicks (elimination races, "overtime" finishes, the ill-fated Car of Tomorrow, mid-race stages), improving nothing and alienating fans along the way.

The Great Recession marked the end of the NASCAR bubble, and you could argue the sport has been in reverse for most of the last decade. I went off to college and then the working world and found better things to do with my Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Gordon, no longer "Wonderboy," but a wealthy middle-aged man with a bad back, retired in 2015 and I couldn't find any other driver to hold my interest.

The world moved on, until, this spring, it didn't.

It seemed oddly fitting that when NASCAR picked up its 2020 season, it did so at Darlington Raceway, "The Track Too Tough to Tame," even for the novel coronavirus, apparently. Darlington already hosts NASCAR's "throwback" weekend in September, and is a venue that has never been accused of being "cookie-cutter." I'm not sure if it's ever been successfully accused of having a bad race, mostly because it's one of the hardest tracks on the circuit to drive.


There have been five races since the sport returned on May 17, and I've watched at least part of all of them.

If there's anything I've learned about the sports world from this pandemic, it's that the frills don't matter. The fundamentals of the product are the same as they were in 1995: having the grace to operate in close quarters and the gumption to add a dash of physicality, power, handling, perfectly timed pit strategy, making sure to credit your sponsors on camera at the end of the day. Everything else is just wrapping paper.

As current events strip so many layers of pretense from around our lives, we return to those basics. And to think, people thought driving in circles was silly.

Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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